Jews in the Diaspora tend to be critical of Israel’s religious status quo, but support the national use of Jewish symbols.
That was one of the findings of a white paper that the Jewish People Policy Institute issued this week, detailing the views of Jewish leaders from around the world on the tension between Israel’s Jewish character and its democratic one.
Even as they have confronted rising intermarriage rates and steadily declining communal affiliation at home, American Jewish organizations have become more assertive in their demands for change in Israel’s religious climate, including vocal support for egalitarian prayer group the Women of the Wall and for changes in conversion and marriage laws.
The JPPI paper came as the result of a call by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to poll Diaspora Jewry on the issue of Israel’s fundamental identity as a state. Senior JPPI fellow Shmuel Rosner, who wrote the paper, based it on the results of a number of seminars that took place worldwide. Organizing many of the seminars in the US were local Jewish federations.
Livni had tapped Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison to compose “a constitutional arrangement dealing with the State of Israel’s Jewish and democratic character” as a counterbalance to various proposals under consideration in the legislature. Gavison then turned to the JPPI to engage Diaspora Jews in what the think tank is calling an “unprecedented process to impact Israel’s character.”
The resulting project, “Jewish and Democratic: Perspectives from World Jewry,” sought to define the parameters within which Israel can legitimately consider itself both Jewish and democratic.
A final report is slated for presentation to Gavison by the end of the month.
In his paper, Rosner admitted that there was a distinct element of selection bias in the groups participating in the discussion process, with more highly engaged Jews taking part and a distinct lack of youth participation.
Diaspora Jewry’s conceptions of the state can differ significantly from those of their coreligionists in Israel, he added, writing that “Jews outside Israel face an environment that is markedly different for Judaism than in the Israeli context.”
“For many Jews the very essence of ‘liberal democracy’ is highly compatible with their understanding of ‘Jewish values,’” and “defining a state as ‘Jewish’ without it being a liberal democracy would be an anathema,” he wrote.
While some Jews whom JPPI polled indicated that it would not “make much sense” to compare the American context to Israel’s, there was a general consensus that “Israel’s democracy is lacking because of the enforcement of Orthodox behavioral norms on civil society, which is mostly secular,” the think tank found.
Diaspora Jews expressed widespread cross-denominational dissatisfaction with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, with strong opposition to the country’s lack of civil marriage and “unease with attempts to enforce other religiously based behaviors” such as banning leaven during Passover and requiring that businesses close on Shabbat.
However, there was also a general consensus favoring the use of the Jewish calendar on a national level, the use of Jewish symbols such as the Star of David on the flag, and references to the Jewish soul in the national anthem.
Overall, Rosner wrote, “world Jews tend to want the expression of Israel’s Jewishness to be inclusive of all Jews, and to not limit personal choice.”
Nonetheless, he hedged, a “significant portion of world Jews accepts the notion that Israel lives under ‘special circumstances,’ which may justify an interpretation of constitutional values different from their own.”
On the whole, it seems that while world Jewry is split on these issues, there is a definite trend toward changing the religious status quo.
Dialogue with Jewish leaders in the Diaspora regarding issues of Jewish identity has become increasingly common over the past year. Public figures including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky have all consulted closely with Jews abroad in formulating their new World Jewish Joint Initiative, a wide-ranging program for stemming the growing tide of assimilation.
On Tuesday, Rabbi Uri Regev of religious equality NGO Hiddush expressed appreciation for the JPPI initiative.
“I wholeheartedly welcome the process of engaging Diaspora leadership in discussing the existential challenges facing the State of Israel, and congratulate Minister Livni on this historic initiative,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “In doing so, she has already gone beyond the recent tactical moves made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, Minister Bennett and Sharansky, which have yet to tackle the real heart of Israel’s identity dilemma.”
Calling the report “highly encouraging,” Regev – a strong proponent of civil marriage and official recognition of non-Orthodox conversions – said it “comes at a time when there is greater discussion and a greater move toward Diaspora involvement with Israeli counterparts in advancing religious freedom and equality for all Jews.”
Orthodox Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the ITIM Advocacy Center, likewise praised the JPPI project, telling the Post that it “represents a reasonable effort to try and come to some sort of global definition of the vitality of a Jewish state for all the Jewish people.”
However, not everyone was convinced that Israel needed to redefine itself by enshrining either a more Jewish or a more democratic character in law.
“I believe that it’s possible to maintain a balance between Jewish and democratic through dialogue and compromise, and no drastic steps are needed to define the state as one over the other,” said American-born Yesh Atid MK Rabbi Dov Lipman.
The Orthodox community in the US has also expressed opposition to importing American Jewish mores into Israeli life.
“The ‘multi-winged’-bird model of Judaism has wrought indescribable damage to... the unity and integrity of the Jewish people in America,” Rabbi Avi Shafran of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel told the Post. “To think that strengthening such ‘religious pluralism’ in Israel will somehow bode well rather than tragically for a state that aspires to the epithet ‘Jewish’ is beyond misguided.”